Thursday, March 19, 2015

Python issue 22516: Administrator rights required for local installation

[UPDATE 2015-07-02] Check out Python Bootstrap a continuously integrated build of Python-2.7 for Windows that can be installed without admin rights.

This issue starts simple enough, but then unravels to reveal some very interesting insights. Evidently creating a Python for Windows installer that does not depend on administrator rights is not as easy as it seems. The question comes down to what we really need. Steve Dover from Microsoft breaks it down like this:

  1. Python as application
  2. This is when someone wants to use python to write scripts, do analysis, etc. Python is an application on their windows machine just like MATLAB or Excel. This could be installed per-user and possible without administrative rights.
  3. Python as library
  4. This version of Python could be used to embed Python in an application. Something similar to what pyexe and other python-freezing packages do. This could be a zip file.
  5. Python as-if system
  6. This version would be installed on a system, possibly by system admins, in a custom windows build, similar to the way that Python is integrated into Mac and Linux. It would require admin rights, and could be used by system admins to add custom functionality to the corporate OS.

Let me say 1st off that I think that #3 is absurd. I can't imagine Windows system admins ever using Python in this way. Most of them have never even heard of Python. And there is an entire .NET infrastructure to do exactly this. Why would you use Python instead of C#? Windows will never, ever be like Linux. It is not a POSIX environment, it does not use GNU tools and it does not need Python.

I think that #1 and #2 could serve the same purpose and should really be the only option available. Users who want to use Python on Windows should unzip the Python Windows distro to their System Root (ie: C:\Python27) and use it. No admin rights required. End of story. It should contain the msvcrt90 redistributable and all libraries it needs. There should be no other dependencies.

There is also a 0th option - do not distribute a binary for Windows at all. Let Windows users build from source themselves, or recommend alternate distribution, which already does on its alternative distribution page.. This is what Ruby does, and perhaps it's the best way to satisfy everyone. But the fact that official Python is available for windows is a very nice thing. Althoght Enthought and ActiveState have been around for a long time, they are private and could go out of business. Nevertheless, this does seem to be the path people are taking.

Anaconda, from Continuum Analytics, a relative newcomer, founded by Peter Wang and Travis Oliphant formerly from Enthought, seems to have become, almost overnight, the most popular source of Python on windows. It's baby sister, Miniconda, is less know but merely installs the conda package/environment manager and Python-2.7 which can be used to install more Python version and packages, whereas Anaconda preinstalls most sci-data packages. The only major concern for me with Anaconda is that it is closed source. Is it the version built out of the box?WinPython on the other hand is open source on github and offers both 32 and 64 bit versions that do not require admin rights to instal. Enthought is also closed source and PortablePython only offers an older out of date 32bit version. There is also PythonXY but for me it seemed buggy.

Not sure what the future of Python on Windows will look like. If you are interested in shaping that future, I suggest you contact one of the Python devs and let them know what your use case is.

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